City of Ottawa followed police lead on ‘Freedom Convoy’ response: city manager

By David Fraser in Ottawa

There was disagreement and confusion between levels of government on how to deal with the “Freedom Convoy” protest before it began and while it unfolded, a public inquiry heard Monday. 

City manager Steve Kanellakos told an inquiry investigating the feds’ use of emergency powers that police were in charge of the response to the convoy, and the city followed the force’s lead throughout.

Kanellakos said the city was only expecting protesters to stay for a short period of time when they arrived in late January, based on information it was getting from Ottawa police. 

But the inquiry was also shown an email on Monday from the “Canada United Truckers Convoy,” which was forwarded to top city officials and Mayor Jim Watson on Jan. 25, that said protesters were trying to book hotels for “a minimum of 30 days.”

Police also had information from a local hotel association suggesting protesters were planning to stay for an extended period, and wrote in a Jan. 26 report shared with the city that “all open source information and our interactions with organizers indicate that this will be a significant and extremely fluid event that could go on for a prolonged period.”

Kanellakos said police were predicting 1,000 to 2,000 people would come for the initial weekend and the majority of them would leave the downtown core afterwards. 

“There wasn’t an assessment that said it would go longer than that,” he told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Monday.

But the protest ultimately gridlocked downtown streets for nearly three weeks, and the federal Liberal government declared an emergency under the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, granting police extraordinary temporary powers in an attempt to clear the protesters.

The commission is expected to hear testimony from Watson and other top Ottawa officials this week, starting with Kanellakos.

Kanellakos said the city shared information with Ottawa police and based its planning and response on the intelligence and threat assessment it received from police.

“The only information we could rely on was from Ottawa police, in terms of reliable information at that time,” said Kanellakos. “Ottawa police has extensive experience dealing with demonstrations in the national capital.”

By Jan. 31, it became clear to Kanellakos and the city that the protests would continue beyond the weekend. In a text message to a city councillor that day, Kanellakos said the strategy was “a negotiation to balance (the protesters’) need to get downtown and get them to park in controlled areas.”

As the protests continued, there were concerns that demonstrators were becoming entrenched, and the police didn’t have the resources to deal with them. 

Kanellakos said that officials knew that a plan put together by city officials and convoy organizers to move “Freedom Convoy” protesters’ semi trucks out of residential neighbourhoods and onto the street in front of Parliament Hill was not going to end the protest. 

“They planned to stay. This was about relief. … It was about relieving those neighbourhoods of trucks and all that came with it,” he said. 

The deal would not have cleared all residential streets, or the area along Rideau Street, of protesters. And it documents filed with the commission show that the Parliamentary Protective Service raised concerns with the prospective plan out of fear that the area around Parliament Hill would become a “parking lot.”

Documents filed with the commission state that the intelligence Kanellakos received from police said there was “a potential for violence and weapons” in certain areas of the protests along Rideau Street, where there were people known to police. Those areas were considered to be more “dangerous and volatile.”

The documents say the city was involved in “situational awareness” calls with the federal government early in February, which were informal discussions about what was happening. 

“The purpose of the calls eventually switched from situational awareness to a discussion of resources and what various levels of government could do in light of existing legislation to put pressure on the protesters,” the documents say, adding that the province of Ontario was “not prepared to do anything” with respect to the insurance or commercial vehicle registrations held by the truckers involved.

By Feb. 7, Kanellakos and Watson were meeting with federal officials, including Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, “to help the (Ottawa police) get additional resources,” the documents say. 

During those meetings, there was disagreement about the number of RCMP officers who may be available to help with the response as the protests dragged on. 

The documents submitted to the commission said the “disagreement or misunderstanding regarding the number of RCMP officers went on for several meetings.”

The Ontario government was invited to the meetings, but did not participate.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who is not on the list of witnesses appearing before the inquiry, was asked by reporters about his participation during an announcement in Ottawa on Monday.

Ford said he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the convoy. 

“If you disrupt the lives of the people of Ottawa every single day, disrupt the lives and economic flow across our borders, I have zero tolerance for it,” he said. 

Ford also said police did an incredible job ending the protests. 

“They were very peaceful, they moved forward, and I am so proud to stand here and back our police right across this country and right across this province,” Ford said. 

Banner image: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks during a news conference, Thursday, April 28, 2022 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022. 

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